A question that is very much related to the question of evil (see earlier blog) is... why is there suffering when God is supposedly so good?
As I suggested earlier in terms of the existence of God, suffering is a result of God allowing humanity freedom. That is, evil is horrendous but serves the function of enabling humanity to choose between good and evil. However, it exists not because God authored it, but because humanity since its inception, have consistently chosen it.
An examination of life of earth I think shows that a good degree of suffering on earth is caused byhuman error. I am sure most agree that it is unfair to blame God for a wars and other human induced problems. These happen because humans choose, in their freedom, to do the wrong thing.
By what do we do with so-called 'natural disasters' or 'acts of God'. These things appear to have nothing to do with human agency. I have to admit that for me this is one of the hardest questions to answer (another is as Dawkins points out in 'The God Delusion' is 'how did God come into existence [more on that in later blogs]).
My answer may not satisfy you but this is how I see it from my reflection on the Biblical witness. When humanity fell into sin firstly at the Fall (Gen 3), it was not merely that humanity was marred with sin and fallenness, but that all creation fell. That is, the Fall was a cataclysmic event that saw the whole of the created order ruptured and its original intent, goodness and beneficience marred. As Paul says in Rom 8:20-21, all creation is in bondage to suffering, death and decay. This extends to the whole created order whether it be the earth, the tectonic plates, volcanoe, the weather systems, the effect of sunspots on the earth, the sea etc.
As such, suffering is not a mere result of human failure in a direct sense, but a result of the cosmic fall of creation. Indeed, where there are 'natural disasters' there is often a complex interplay of direct human and indirect human 'natural factors'. So for example, an earthquake occurs and houses that are poorly built (direct human failure) fall and more lives are lost than should happen. I would say that earthquakes, droughts, eruptions, tsumamis and more are a result of human failure in the cosmic indirect sense in that the whole created order that we experience in this universe is marred. In addition, the effect of such events is often exacerbated by the problem of human sin in a more direct sense.
Paul tells us in Rom 8:22 that this creation will be set free from its bondage to decay, death, suffering and fallenness at the point of the culmination of human history at the return of Christ. Then, all things will be put in order including the restoration of creation. It is unclear how this will work; whether it will be restoration of the existing created order or a completely new order.
There are other things we can say about suffering. God is not distant from our suffering. Creation itself and the granting of freedom to humanity from robotic or coerced obedience led to God experiencing the grief and pain of seeing his beautiful world and beloved people reject him. He experienced the pain of seeing humanity inflict pain upon each other with the exertion of power and dominance. And he chose to participate in suffering to redeem his creation. Indeed, it is suffering saved us. It is through pain and the ignomony of our greatest enemy death that evil was defeated on the cross.
When Jesus as God made flesh died on the cross, he experienced the full brunt of evil and torture and death itself without falling into its snare. He could have fought back with the glorious power he had at his fingertips; rather, he chose not to use to fight evil. Instead, he allowed himself to be destroyed. In so doing and as a result of his flawless life, he was able to overcome death and make a way for us all to be saved. All we have to do is put our lives in his hands and his death becomes our judgement and we are saved, through his suffering.
So God has experienced suffering. He knows what it is like to be human. He knows pain, he knows grief, he knows the feeling of being rejected, whipped, beaten, nailed, punched and killed. He is not a distant God who is not connected to our reality.
Suffering also tells us we are alive. Sometimes it is easy to believe life is an illusion and then we pinch ourselves. Pain and suffering remind us that life is for real.
Suffering reveals good where suffering does not exist. Unless suffering existed, we would not know the concept of no suffering. It is the absence of suffering we yearn for because suffering exists.
Ironically and disturbingly, God uses suffering to make us better people. It is well known that it is in times of pain and suffering that we grow the most. In fact some would argue that suffering is essential for growth in a fallen world. It is a recurring theme in the NT that suffering leads to character development (Rom 5:3-5; James 1:2-4). In a fallen world, one of God’s main ways of developing us, is through suffering.
Christianity also points to a force of evil that seeks to enhance suffering, Satan. God is not the author of suffering. However, he has allowed evil to exist as his antithesis, humanity in its freedom chooses to rebel and sin, and so suffering has invaded and infected God's world. Suffering ultimately however, is engineered by the power of evil, the personal anti-God and his minions who seek to inflict pain and torment on us all.
Thankfully, Christianity is in the end, all about hope. We are assured that suffering will ultimately be destroyed and we will live forever in a pain-free zone (Matt 25:36; Rev 21:1-4). The hope of the Christian message is that God will bring this age to a conclusion and destroy all evil and suffering. At that point, suffering will cease to exist and those who have said yes to God will live forever with him in a place of bliss and joy.
For me, this is one of the most attractive aspects of Christianity. As I peruse my own frailties and the problem of evil which pervades our planet manifested most strongly in murder, war, violence, rape and oppression, I hold fast to the promise of the end of suffering, when every tear will be wiped away, every injustice dealt to and all things made right. The cross and the resurrection which points to God's victory over suffering and death, promises us this and I yearn for the day of Jesus' return. The resurrected Jesus is the first-fruits of the harvest of this victory which will come to complete consummation at his return.
So suffering exists and will continue to exist as long as humans are allowed the freedom to accept or reject God. God will end this when he is ready. In the meantime, I believe that this suffering has a redemptive and educative purpose and should not be written off as valueless. It tells us we are alive, it points to goodness, it has been defeated in the cross and resurrection. Ultimately, where God is accepted, at Christ's return, suffering will be removed from the experience of all in the world to come. Roll on that day I say!